Fearless Focus: Mario Morino

In our journey to Be Fearless and champion a fearless approach to tackling social challenges, the Case Foundation team will spotlight leading changemakers across sectors that have embraced fearlessness. Our spotlights will provide personal accounts of why these changemakers adopted a fearless approach, how they overcame hurdles, and how taking risks, being bold, and failing forward led to quicker results and deeper impact.

This week, we are featuring Mario Morino, Chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) and the Morino Institute, and author of Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity. Jean and Steve Case along with the Case Foundation are founding investors and long-time supporters of VPP, a philanthropic investment organization that helps great leaders build strong, high-performing nonprofit institutions in the DC region.Since co-founding VPP in 2000, Mario has been a leader in applying venture and growth principles to the nonprofit sector to build stronger, high-impact organizations. Previous to VPP, Mario was a software entrepreneur and civic business leader in the DC region, and more recently in Northeast Ohio.

What do you think it means to Be Fearless in approaching social challenges?

A fearless leader has the courage to periodically look in the mirror to face that difficult question, “Is our hard work truly adding up to great results for those we serve?” And if the answer is “no,” a fearless leader acknowledges shortcomings, reaches out for help from others, seeks relevant information on how to improve, and then takes bold (even painful) steps to get on a more impactful course. In my work with Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP), with other nonprofit organizations, and in my business career, I’ve made more than my share of mistakes, sought help, and then course-corrected. But let me offer a better example of fearless introspection which I learned about this past year. In the early 1990s, Youth Villages (YV) CEO Pat Lawler kept hearing through the grapevine about young people who seemed to be on a good path after discharge from YV’s residential treatment facilities and yet had ended up in prison or in other forms of crisis. This prompted Pat to start collecting more information to find out what was really happening to those kids. The results were disappointing at best. Instead of hiding the bad news from stakeholders, Pat and his team openly acknowledged that they were falling short of their aspirations and then spent several tough years reengineering the entire program model. Today, 82 percent percent of the kids in YV programs across the country are rising above their challenges. They are finishing school, earning a living, and contributing to their communities. That’s literally twice the rate achieved by comparable programs. And Pat’s program costs one-third as much as competitor programs.

Tell us about a time when you and your organization were Fearless.

In all candor, I don’t see myself as fearless, as I’ve had the luxury of time and resources to be able to take thoughtful, measured risks (at least most of the time). For instance, I never viewed co-founding VPP as being fearless, nor did I see the choices we made in our philanthropic investments as fearless, since they were grounded by deep analysis. Having said this, in my business and philanthropic life I have consistently done what some would regard as bold or even on the edge: I have sought to recruit leaders to my boards, advisory groups, and management teams who know more than I do and from whom I can learn. For example, recruiting Carol Thompson Cole to serve as VPP’s CEO would feel pretty risky to some organizational founders. Carol is an exemplary leader who commands deep respect and could steal a founder’s thunder. But to me, being able to recruit outstanding talent-talent that could (and should) take me out of a central decision-making role with the organization-is essential. I believe leaders of organizations have to be fearless in recruiting and/or developing the strongest talent they can for the boards and organization-even when that talent is better than they are.

What did you learn & what advice would you give other organizations facing a similar decision point?

I think the hardest thing to do is to question your own performance and that of your organization. It sounds trite, but being honest with yourself is critical. It’s easy to say you want to recruit strong talent to your board and organization until you are confronted with the fact that these same strong people will have strong views and opinions, modes of operation, etc., that are different from yours. That’s when the rubber meets the road. As long as you are philosophically and culturally aligned, are you ready to step back and give others the latitude to speak out, to differ, and to lead? Much easier said than done. There’s a follow-on, which is to have to courage to admit when a people decision you made was wrong and then act to rectify it. As one of my bosses and advisors told me, if you hire someone and they leave or they don’t work out in the first year, it is squarely your mistake. You either didn’t do the right due diligence up front, or you inadvertently set the person up to fail.

What inspired your organization to Be Fearless?

I don’t mean to dodge your question, but as I said earlier I don’t see myself as fearless. Writing columns, giving speeches, and supporting others doesn’t exactly take nerves of steel. But running a community health center, intervening with gang members, negotiating with a drug dealer to stay away from your school-now that takes a fearless leader! Therefore, I feel much more comfortable speaking about nonprofit leaders who, for very compelling reasons, are truly fearless in their work-and they have to be to succeed. What always inspires great nonprofit leaders to be fearless is the passionate, unyielding desire to do the most they can for those they serve. Great leaders can’t sleep at night when they don’t know whether they’re on course to achieve the results they seek. They’re obsessed with finding ways to do better for those they serve. And as a result, they are willing take big risks to get there.

Learn more about Mario Morino here. Read more about our Be Fearless campaign. Know someone that we should spotlight for Fearless Focus? Let us know here in the comments or tell us on twitter @casefoundation using #befearless